T20 World Cup: Rahul in focus as India, South Africa face off in pacy Perth
To travel to Perth from any other mainland city in Australia is like travelling to another country altogether. The flight from Sydney, where India played their previous game, takes five hours and 20 minutes, and if you are unfortunate enough for it to be delayed by three hours, like we were, you can end up landing at 1.30 am to a cold welcome of sharp showers and icy winds.
The Western Australian capital can get extremely hot, like many parts of this vast country, during peak summer, which is not yet here. These are the final days of spring in the southern hemisphere, but even the locals are surprised at how unseasonably cold it has been for the last few days.
Saturday night in Perth was marked by people swaddled in jackets and beanies, rubbing their gloved hands together to find some semblance of warmth outdoors. It’s just as well that it was not match night, because the conditions would have made it impossible for the players to give off their best.
The forecast for Sunday (October 30), when India lock horns with South Africa in the respective third Super 12 T20 World Cup games for both sides, is a lot more encouraging, with the sun scheduled to make a reasonably sustained appearance during the day. Whether that means the night will be pleasant enough remains to be seen, but such the lot of professional sportspersons that they need to get on with it, no matter what.
Extra pace and bounce
Perth is different from most traditional Australian cricketing centres in that, when the sport was played at the hallowed Western Australia Cricket Association (WACA) ground at the international level, it challenged visiting teams with its extra pace and bounce. To come to Australia and not ‘taste’ Perth hospitality was a bit like going to New Zealand and not playing in Dunedin, the easily the coldest cricketing venue in the world where fielders are reluctant to take their hands off their pockets.
The WACA ground doesn’t host international cricket anymore. That honour has now fallen on the multi-sport Optus Stadium, a modern monstrosity that has better amenities and a seating capacity pinged at 60,000. The pitches don’t have the same spice as the WACA, but they are still pretty juiced up, as India found to their detriment in the inaugural international at the venue, the second Test of their historic four-match series in 2018-19.
A tinge of green beckoned Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid when, in a break from norm, the covers were lifted off the square to give the Indian think-tank an opportunity to have a look at the playing surface briefly on Saturday afternoon. Neither the captain nor the head coach looked unduly fazed; as batting coach Vikram Rathour pointed out, India’s batsmen as a rule don’t have issues with pace or bounce any longer. They are vulnerable to movement, swing or seam, but that’s true of all batsmen all over the world. In any case, while India’s bowlers may not be able to conjure up the same pace as an Anrich Nortje or a Kagiso Rabada, they are extremely skilled and now equipped to give back as good as they get.
This top-of-the-table battle between two unbeaten teams has plenty riding on it not just for the protagonists but also for Pakistan, who play in the day’s first game against Netherlands. Looking for their first win, Pakistan know that even if they sweep their three remaining games, it doesn’t guarantee them a place in the knockout semis. If any two of India, South Africa and Zimbabwe win two more matches, Pakistan will take an early flight home, so it will be in their best interests if India maintain an all-win record throughout Group 2 action so that a scrap ensues for the remaining qualifying slot.
South Africa’s ICC trophy drought
After a long time, South Africa have come into a World Cup with some hint of favouritism affixed to them. Far too often in the past, they have been touted as serious contenders, only to find unique ways to court disaster. Indeed, their only global title came at the ICC KnockOut Trophy (as the Champions Trophy was then called), when they won the inaugural edition in Bangladesh in 1998. Since then, it has been a tale of near-misses, though in Mark Boucher’s last assignment as national coach, they are in with a shout of making a strong play for top honours.
That’s because there is experience and nous in a squad led by the under-performing Temba Bavuma, whose run of poor scores is something no captain would like to take with him into an important game, let alone tournament. Bavuma excepted, the other batsmen are in prime form. Quinton de Kock has always enjoyed playing against India, late bloomer Rilee Rossouw is coming off hundreds in his last two T20I innings and David Miller’s floundering career has received fresh impetus after his stint with champions Gujarat Titans in the IPL.
Their bowling attack is pace heavy, but spin is well represented in the form of left-armers Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi. Unlike Pakistan, they aren’t as bad on their bad days and they generally don’t have too many bad days, though they will remember with some distaste a particularly poor evening in Thiruvananthapuram a month back when India restricted them to 106 for eight in 20 overs.
It’s that performance, and the familiarity earned through seven T20Is against the Proteas in the last five months, which will enable India to go into the game confident of their prospects. They’d like a handy contribution from vice-captain KL Rahul, who has looked woefully out of sorts and inexplicably low on confidence, but they’d have been buoyed by the wonderful form of Virat Kohli, who has made two unbeaten half-centuries to continue his rejuvenation after a prolonged lean spell.
That it will be India’s second consecutive double header might suck some of the life off the surface but irrespective of, this should be a cracker. Perhaps that should help bring some warmth in these unusually chilly times. Victory for either side will push them a step closer to the semifinals, a mouth-watering subtext to a larger battle.